In the media

The Sustainable Flight Challenge: This is how you stimulate innovative sustainability in aviation

By Jeroen Dubel


17 May 2023

On May 7, 2022, KLM flight KL1713 landed at Porto Airport. An everyday event in itself, were it not for the fact that a special record was quietly broken here. The Cityhopper flew in a straight line from Schiphol to the Portuguese port city. Normally that is not possible and you have to ‘fly around’ because of the way in which European airspace is divided.

Special flight

Optimal conditions had been created to enable the ultra-economical flight. The aircraft, the Embraer 190, is one of the most economical in the KLM fleet. It flew on 39 percent sustainable jet fuel that day. In addition, various adjustments resulted in lower fuel consumption: the speed was lower than normal and all kinds of weight reduction measures were taken. For example, passengers had to select their meal in advance and water consumption was predicted using artificial intelligence (AI). KLM naturally informed the passengers that they were on a flight with an environmental mission.

Tackling the challenge together

Record breaking flight KL1713 was part of the first iteration of the Sustainable Flight Challenge (TSFC), an educational competition devised by a group of enthusiastic KLM employees to stimulate innovative sustainability in aviation. The competitive challenge was soon transferred to SkyTeam, the global airline alliance, to create the widest possible base. Mauro Oretti, vice president of marketing & commercial at SkyTeam: “Only by working together can we accelerate sustainability initiatives.”

Travelling in a straight line

The great thing is that going green does not have to be at the expense of speed and efficiency. On the contrary. Oretti says that KLM’s record flight to Porto was the shortest ever. Working together with international air traffic control, a perfectly straight line route was drawn between Amsterdam and Porto especially for the challenge; something that is normally never possible. “This proves that a Single European Sky, with the most optimal flight routes and a single European air traffic control system, would greatly improve sustainability.”

Notable achievements

Sixteen airlines participated in the first iteration of TSFC. The challenge was full of remarkable achievements:

  • More than 1,500 employees worldwide developed hundreds of sustainability initiatives.
  • In total, the flights achieved a CO2 emission reduction of 15 percent compared to the same flights before the challenge.
  • In terms of emissions, they performed no less than 32 percent better compared to the industry benchmarks.
  • By recycling smarter, 1.15 kilos less waste was generated per passenger than the average in the sector.
  • The flights that flew on sustainable jet fuel emitted 86.3 percent less CO2 per litre than if they had used the more common Jet A-1 kerosene.

Aviation veteran Oretti (he worked for nineteen years at Alitalia and thirteen years at SkyTeam) said: “The challenge is proof that with the right mindset aviation is capable of great innovation.” At PA Consulting, which advises SkyTeam, partner Jeroen Dubel calls the educational competition a crucial initiative. “If all these innovations are implemented in daily practice, they can significantly reduce the footprint of the sector.”

A more impressive sequel

The dazzling success of the first TSFC edition demanded a sequel. With Delta as a co-organiser, no less than 22 companies will participate in 24 categories in 2023. These vary from the ‘flight with the lowest CO2 emissions’ to the ‘best cooperation between companies’ Oretti says: “Perhaps the most important new category is ‘adoption’. This is for companies that implement their TSFC initiatives best in their daily operations and activities.”

Influencing passengers

Both internal company audiences and passengers must be convinced of the value of green ambition. “There is therefore an award for best employee engagement and collaboration in the ‘collaboration’ category,” said Oretti. “There is also one for best customer involvement, because we would like to see whether the airlines can get their own employees and their customers on board in their pursuit of cleaner flying.” Dubel is convinced that this will work. “Their audience looks at a great idea and asks: What does this really change? TSFC shows the tangible results that the aviation industry is already achieving.”

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